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September 30, 2009 1:39 PM

Auto Review: Toyota Prius stays on top in mileage

Toyota Prius

AP Photo / Toyota

There's a little something extra for car buyers who have their hearts set on top fuel mileage in the Toyota Prius. But they'd better not get tired of the car's wedge shape.

The world's best-selling gasoline-electric hybrid car is out for 2010 with slight increases in length and width, more horsepower, improved steering, upgraded interior and new features but with the same shape as before and pretty much the same exterior styling.

It turns out the Prius' wedge shape, subtly honed so updates for 2010 aren't even likely to be noticed, helps make for an extremely efficient and "slippery through the air" coefficient of drag.

It's this smooth movement through air and lack of air turbulence that helps give the Prius a fuel economy rating from the federal government that's increased slightly this year, going from a combined city/highway 46 miles per gallon for a 2009 model to 50 mpg. This means the Prius remains the highest-mileage vehicle with internal combustion engine in America.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $22,750 hasn't changed from 2009.

Still, Honda's new-for-2010 Insight gas-electric hybrid hatchback that looks like a Prius on the outside with similar wedge shape has a lower starting retail price of $20,510. The 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid starts at $27,995, which is near the starting price for the top Prius model for 2010.

Indeed, the top-of-the-line 2010 Prius V can be had for more than $33,000 when it's fitted with advanced technology package and other goodies, as the test 2010 Prius showed. But even at this price, the tester didn't include a moonroof.

Toyota officials call the 2010 Prius a third-generation car, coming after the first Prius debuted in the States in 2000. An earlier Prius was sold in Japan but never came to these shores.

With each succeeding generation, the Prius has grown larger, and the 2010 mid-size model is no exception.

2010 Toyota Prius V
  • BASE PRICE: $22,000 for II model; $23,000 for III; $25,800 for IV; $27,270 for V.
  • AS TESTED: $33,079.
  • TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, mid-size hatchback.
  • ENGINE: 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, four cylinder engine with VVT-i and 60-kilowatt electric motor.
  • MILEAGE: 51 mpg (city), 48 mpg (highway).
  • TOP SPEED: NA.
  • LENGTH: 175.6 inches.
  • WHEELBASE: 106.3 inches.
  • CURB WEIGHT: 3,042 pounds.
  • BUILT AT: Japan.
  • OPTIONS: Advanced technology package (includes pre-collision system, radar cruise control, navigation system, JBL audio system, Bluetooth wireless communication system, backup camera) $4,500; security system $359; carpeted floor mats and cargo mat $200.
  • DESTINATION CHARGE: $750.

It's 0.6 inch longer, overall, than last year's model but rides on the same 106.3-inch, front-wheel drive platform. It's also 0.8 inch wider and tips the scales at more than 3,000 pounds, which is some 100 more than the previous car.

I noticed a heftier feel in the test car, and a more connected feel to the steering compared with the artificial feel that the steering had in earlier Priuses.

But the most noticeable improvement is the energetic power.

The new Prius uses a 1.8-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine whose larger displacement from last year's 1.6 liters contributes to more horsepower -- now 98 -- and good fuel mileage because the engine doesn't have to work so much at high revs.

Coupled with electric power from the motor-generator-battery pack system that automatically kicks in to propel the car during startups and accelerations, the powerplant package is bound to surprise drivers who don't think they can get zip in a fuel-thrifty car.

Even the continuously variable transmission works well to supply the power when needed.

Some of this is due to the "modes" of travel that drivers can select to tailor the ride to their preferences.

For example, in the "eco" mode, the Prius seeks to maximize fuel economy, and the acceleration in the tester showed it with lackluster acceleration from stop lights.

But in "power" mode, I squealed the tires.

There's even an all-electric mode -- called "EV" -- that a driver can select with the touch of a button. It will keep the engine turned off and move the car on electric power only, but this is at low speeds and for very short distances.

This kind of detail isn't all there is to learn if you buy a Prius.

The gearshifter is a stubby lever that has to be moved in an "H'' pattern on the dashboard, and it took practice to get it right. In the meantime, the test car was out of a parking spot and sitting smack in the middle of a lane with a flustered driver trying to get into "drive."

Several displays and fuel mileage charts monitor gas usage over time. And all gauges and displays are up in the middle of the dashboard, against the windshield, rather than directly in front of the steering wheel.

So, be prepared to spend some quality time with the Prius' 608-page owner's manual.

There was noticeable road, engine and electric "whir" sounds in the tester. This is not a luxury car, after all, and it's evident when looking up at the old-style, fuzz ceiling material.

The raised center console between the front seats takes up a good amount of room and looks like something lifted from a spaceship control console.

But seats are nicely improved with good support, and I liked that the side windows at all doors are large. Back-door windows go down all the way, too.

Headroom in the back seat now measures 37.6 inches compared with 36.3 inches in the 2009 Prius, and it felt comfortable with increased shoulder room.

I appreciated that the rear floor had no hump, but the pull-down rear-seat center armrest flopped down on the seat cushion in the test car and was too low for me to use. And even with two rear windows, I valued the optional rearview camera.

The Prius' frontal crash test results netted only four out of five stars from the U.S. government. And Consumer Reports predicts "excellent" reliability.